Start simple when interpreting a dream symbol. It helps you see the meaning through the distractions. Start simple, generate ideas, and check if they fit into the bigger picture the dream paints. The dream author won’t leave you hanging; it uses symbols in the context of a story, and the context defines what the symbols mean.
Take fire, for instance. Fire burns, and what burns also hurts. Fire as a symbol may simply mean something that hurts. Does the dream use fire in the context of a story that involves hurt and pain? If so, pain may be what it means by fire. Say that you touch the fire on purpose, and the meaning is similar to the phrase “don’t touch a hot stove.” Why? Because it burns — it hurts!
Next, to find what the imagery means, ask yourself if you’re doing something to cause yourself or someone else pain, or you’re headed that direction — for example, by falling in love with the wrong person, and you know what the end result will be but can’t help yourself; you touch that hot stove anyway. You can’t help yourself from doing it because you are following the same pattern as your waking life. Dreams visualize ideas, and the hurt symbolized as fire, while visualized physically, and perhaps experienced as the sensation of pain while dreaming, is probably the emotional, psychological, and existential variety.
Pain is something we want to keep our distance from, and so is fire. Fire as a symbol can mean “stay away.”
Fire as metaphor
Keep in mind, though, that the dream cares most about the idea in the metaphor, not the metaphor itself. The idea about touching a hot stove is that you should know better. The stove is hot and you’ll burn yourself by touching it — duh! The message is simple, and the dream author’s options for expressing it are many. Instead of touching a hot stove, you pick up an object that’s on fire and it burns you — what else did you expect to happen? It’s the same idea.
The same point can be made by giving a dream character the role of enacting the idea, such as in the dream a teenager had where his brother sticks red hot pins into his body and howls in pain but keeps doing it. He looks like a victim of a demonic acupuncturist! The dreamer and his brother do ‘Jack Ass’ stunts together that they know are likely to cause themselves pain and injury and do them anyway. The dream projects the action onto the brother as a character because the dreamer blames him for instigating the stunts. But when he sees his brother in the dream, he’s really seeing himself. The dream imagery “pokes holes” in his illusions.
Fire is dangerous. Uncontained, it spreads quickly and incinerates everything it touches. Dreams use those associations to create scenarios where fire is a danger. In which case, you and/or other characters in the scene react to the fire as if it’s dangerous. But it’s also possible that the fire symbolizes a danger you flaunt, ignore or don’t recognize, and there you are roasting marshmallows while everyone else runs for their lives. Subconsciously, you know what the fire means and react accordingly.
Fire destroys, and while a lot of things destroy, a dream chooses fire over other options because it matches well with personal and situational dynamics. Jealousy and hot anger, for example, are destructive and like a fire in the heart. When someone’s life ‘goes up in flames’ it’s a hot, destructive situation. Cities burning can mean a person’s orientation toward public life is completely changing, or their reputation is going up in flames. And when buildings burn it can mean that structures of thought and belief are changing. The imagery of a building burning to the ground is a dramatic way of saying “drastic changes.”
Also, fire destroys completely. Ashes are all that’s left, and they could be the ashes of your former life or self, or all that remains of a big idea or hope that failed.
The Phoenix rises from the ashes, a symbol of rebirth. In one man’s dream, a dog that he loved — it was hit by a car and died — is trapped inside a building as it burns down, and there’s nothing he can do to save it. In the next scene, he sees the spirit of his dog leave the building, and he senses that it is returning to Mother Nature. Soon afterward, he felt a shift inside himself, allowing him to end his grieving.
Fire spreads as it destroys, and that association comes in handy for situations and conditions that get out of hand and spread from person to person. Rumors are like fire when they’re destructive. False beliefs and lies are too.
Interpreting a fire dream
Take for instance a woman’s dream that she picks up a piece of paper from her desk at work, lights it on fire and throws it in the trash can. The paper already in the trash can ignites and the fire spreads, threatening her office. She thinks to herself, why did I do something so stupid, and the scene ends.
To interpret the meaning, she focuses first on her work life — in the dream she’s at work so that’s the place to begin — and what came across her desk recently — in the dream she’s at her desk — and it brings up a memory of reading something written by a co-worker and discarding it. Why discard it? At first she thinks it’s because the co-worker’s ideas are inferior but then realizes that in the dream she never read what’s written on the paper; instead, she lit it on fire and tossed it, and when she asks herself why she did that, the response from inside her is, it’s not worth reading.
It makes her realize that she doesn’t give her co-worker’s ideas a chance; instead, she just assumes they have no merit. And with further self-analysis, the revelation smacks her that the attitude is based on what she’s heard about the co-worker from other co-workers, not from honest evaluation — their opinions are like a fire that spreads to her. She’s a fair and rational person, but making an assumption not based on merit is what? It’s stupid, like lighting paper on fire and tossing it into a trash can full of paper.
Subconsciously, she knows what that action means, and that’s why her reaction while dreaming is to wonder why she did something so stupid. Sure, it’s a stupid action on the face of it, but the thought comes to her after the fire spreads, meaning after she’s influenced by the opinions of others. Dreams don’t follow ordinary logic, and when they do it’s more by chance than design.
Fire consumes. Imagine the possibilities for using fire to symbolize something that’s all-consuming: passion, focus, commitment, desire, ambition. A person “on fire” is on a mission and nothing will stop them, or they are on a roll, extraordinarily lucky or zoned in. It’s not enough for a dream to say, “you’re consumed by your work.” Instead, it shows you on fire! Or it may project the action onto a setting such as your home going up in flames to show you the consequences of work consuming your life. That way, a dream shows the idea as a metaphor rather than as a boring memo, and you get the point. What you do with the information is up to you.
Fire burns. Yeah, that’s obvious, but in dream-speak it can mean anything from burning desire to something more literal. For example, a burning bed is a common metaphor for hot burning passion. That bed is getting a workout! But never assume without testing for other possible meanings.
For one man who dreamed about his bed on fire, it was obviously not passion or sex that the dream meant — none of that was going on his life. Plus, the dream seemed too literal by showing his bed in his bedroom and himself sleeping in it the same as he was while dreaming. So after he woke up, he pulled his bed out from the wall and checked behind it. An electrical socket had gone bad and the cord plugged into it was red hot. While sleeping, he caught whiffs of frying electrical cord and his dream translated it as imagery of his bed burning. His astute precaution may have saved him from his dream coming true!
Fire purifies, and now we get to an interesting and not-so-obvious association that dreams use as symbolism. For one woman, her dream creates a scenario where she’s a participant in a ritual outside an ancient temple carved into a mountainside. She stands in a circle of robed priests around bluish-white flames rising high into the air from a mandala symbol etched into the stone. Lightning streaks across the sky, and the sun is close to setting. The High Priest, dressed in ritual garb, motions that her time has come. She knows without being told what she must do.
She disrobes and walks naked into the flames. She feels the most intense tingling from head to toe, as if the flames are inside every cell of her body. A voice coming from the flames says to her, “I am Agni, and I declare you worthy as a messenger of the Gods!” The flames then form into the shape of a great bird, and it carries her spirit into the heavens where she meets many great and ancient beings but remembers very little about her interactions with them.
She wakes up feeling like a new woman, and more, like she’s just returned from a trip to the stars. The darkness she’d felt within herself before the dream is gone, burned away. A great purpose in life awaits her. She remembers the name Agni and researches it, and discovers that it’s the Vedic God of fire and purification! And further, the imagery of the lightning, the sun, and the bird are all part of Agni mythology. Before the dream she was clueless about this Vedic God, so how did she dream about it in such detail?
The knowledge is contained in the collective unconscious, that’s how. The dream author works inside the world’s grandest library of knowledge, with the detailed histories of all mythologies, religions, and more. Dreams that directly tap the collective unconscious like hers did — some dream theories say that all dreams in one way or another tap it — are highly important and sometimes life-changing.
More dream symbolism – fire
Fire is hot, and now the symbolism of it can branch off in many directions — the metaphorical possibilities are endless. Metaphors use heat to mean hot emotions and feelings, hot ideas and trends, and hot passions and desires. A hot-headed person is one whose temper easily flares. A fire in the belly means the hot pursuit of something.
The many meanings of “hot” are behind most of the possibilities for fire symbolism discussed already. But the one that’s the most enigmatic is the use of heat as a counterpoint to cold, fire as the counterpoint to ice, and light as the counterpoint to dark. Those opposites are among the most basic in existence, and the ‘clash of opposites’ generates the heat in the forge of all that exists. From the opposite polarities of positive and negative in atoms, to the opposite polarities of the archetypes in the roots of the psyche, it’s the dynamic energy of all life. Fire in its most essential sense means energy.
The big burning ball of gas in the sky that is our sun is the giver of life on this planet, and it’s an association that’s as old as humanity. The solar God is the original one, and heat and flame have long been associated with it. Moses spoke with the Burning Bush, and a pillar of fire led the Israelites out of Egypt. The sun went dark when Jesus died on the cross, and the Holy Spirit appeared as “tongues of fire” on the Day of Pentecost. Fire is spirit, and regardless of one’s beliefs about the subject, the most powerful dreams featuring fire can speak to one’s existence.
It’s one reason why dreams about a fire that can’t be quenched or escaped are among the most haunting for a range of people from the most devout to the most militant atheists. Questions about mortality and death are behind those dreams — the flames of the funerary pyre. But the dreams are really about life and living it fully. In the heart of us all is a flame that energizes our personal transformations — the alchemical fire, and light of one’s consciousness. When the fire in your dreams leaves nothing behind or it forces you to adapt to a new situation, it may be a blessing in disguise. You too can rise from the ashes.
This post is excerpted from my forthcoming book: Nightmares and Dark Dreams. Subscribe to be notified when it’s published.